Belfast’s place to see and to be seen
The Cathedral Quarter has come alive again. Where once sat empty loft offices echoing to the lifeless beat of an economic depression, there is now an epicentre of creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and networking. Some of the commercial residents are calling for this area to be dubbed the ‘creative hub of Northern Ireland’, but others aren’t so sure…
With its cobbled streets, exposed brick walls and bustling social scene, it is easy to see why the Cathedral Quarter has become such an attractive place to work. Five years ago this area would have been an out-of-reach option for those looking for their first time office space. Now the hefty rental price tags have fallen and the buildings have found new tenants. Very little space is left on the market and there are two dominant types of businesses now claiming this patch as their own – the creative sector and the digital start-ups.
This has been an area that has been full of success stories recently. From the Kickstarter projects like Brewbot and Little Thunder Co’s Chalky the Cat children’s book, to the ever popular Culture Night and Cathedral Arts Festival which draw in increasing crowds every year.
So hot right now
Tim Potter, director, Little Thunder Co, is one of those in favour of classing the Cathedral Quarter as the new creative hub of Northern Ireland. He said: “This area has an avant-garde feel to it which is great for fostering innovation and creativity. You’ll find digital start-ups, graphic design agencies, web design and development studios, product designers and event organisers. There is everything from one-person practices to large businesses. The University of Ulster is also located here and acts as an incubator for future creative talent coming into the area, and we also have inspirational public arts venues like the MAC.”
According to Mr Potter, Hill Street is particularly desirable right now, supported by the great selection of bars, cafes and restaurants all just a stone’s throw away. The locals have even named it ‘Silicon Alleyway’ in response to the recent influx of tech and digital businesses.
Despite the market crash, I was still unconvinced that such an aesthetically pleasing area would be within the financial remits for companies just starting out. To launch a business is a risk in itself, but to add to it with an expensive rent bill at the end of every month seems like a foolish move. Mr Potter was quick to highlight the options available: “There is something to suit everybody’s budget here. You could take a single desk or private office in a shared workspace like Blick Studios, where we are based, which is very affordable, or if you needed something a bit more substantial then you could find an entire floor in a building.”
We can network it out
Collaboration and networking are rife in this area. Every other month Refresh Belfast is held in the Black Box for the local web design community. On a typical night it will attract upwards of 150 creatives who come together to hear talks, share ideas and drink a few beers. There is also Get Together, held in Blick Studios, which runs several times throughout the year. It brings together entrepreneurs, wantrepreneurs, start-ups and passionate individuals who want to put Northern Ireland on the map as an innovative hub.
Feedback Friday has also recently launched to give individuals and businesses the opportunity to share their ideas with attendees and gain feedback and advice on their project in a friendly and informal environment. This is held at various locations around the Cathedral Quarter.
Rumble in the creative jungle
Simon Hamilton is the managing director of Rumble Labs, an app development company that was set up in 2009. He feels that, while they may be on the periphery, they shouldn’t be labelled as part of the creative sector. Instead Mr Hamilton feels that the Cathedral Quarter has a much more varied landscape. He said: “There are a lot of start-ups in this area, both in the creative and technology sectors. The appeal for us was the close proximity of the restaurants and the social scene that exists between all the companies that work here. We all know what the others do and we all tend to go to the same places after work.”
The social scene can be held responsible for bringing the majority of companies into this area it seems. However, for Mr Hamilton, the real deal sealer has been the reduction in the rental costs: “There is no doubt that rent is still higher than in other areas in the city, but since the peak they have fallen by a substantial amount. They are much more affordable for early stage businesses. Creative people appreciate the character in this area and they are more willing than other sectors to pay a higher price for it. ”
So perhaps a creative hub title would limit the remits of this area, particularly when there appears to be a varied selection setting up shop here? For Tina Chong, partner at sustainable graphic design and responsive web development consultancy Meadow, this label would help to turn the Cathedral Quarter into a business landmark for Northern Ireland.
She told me: “We work in the Blick Shared Studios on Hill Street where there is shared meeting and event space. It is aimed at the creative industries and residents include graphic designers, webs developers, script writers and documentary producers. It gives access to office space in central Belfast at really competitive rates. There is a waiting list for this office”
Ms Chong has credited their move from a home based environment into shared office space with a 30% increase in their sales. It has also allowed them to join forces with other small enterprises to compete for tenders and larger projects.
This is all good news indeed, but she feels that more could be done to help the area grow: “We would love to see some developments take place to support the creative atmosphere. The pedestrianisation of Hill Street would be a great advantage and it would create a safer area, especially at night. Traffic congestion is common. There is also a need for more gallery space for artists to showcase their work in this central location.”
Cat nip for creatives
There is no doubt that this area is proving to be like cat nip to creative companies but would a title of the ‘creative hub of Northern Ireland’ benefit or hinder the development of this business community? We have heard from the residents working on the inside, now let’s hear from you.